Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 272 pages; 1994.
First published in 1916, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce is a semi-autobiographical first novel that has been much lauded for its inventive use of language and its exposé on the claustrophobia of growing up in holy Catholic Ireland.
Stephen Dedalus, the narrator of the novel, tells his story stream-of-consciousness-style from early childhood, where he boards at a strict Jesuit school, to early adulthood, when he has a crisis of faith, abandons his religion and flees his country.
The first part of his novel is enormously entertaining and deeply moving. Joyce captures the voice of the child protagonist so well, you want to wrap up the young Stephen in your arms to protect him from the school bullies and the violent priests. When he makes a decision to stand up for himself, albeit under some duress from his school chums, you feel his fear, but then you also share his elation when he confronts that fear and survives.
Unfortunately, for me, the charm and beauty of the book’s opening chapters are not sustained. As the story progresses and Stephen grows older, the narrative becomes more complicated, with intricate, sometimes overly wordy passages that are difficult to follow. By the time Stephen is at university, the intellectualising of his thoughts are almost unfathomable! More than once I had to backtrack and re-read entire pages to try to make sense of them.
I suspect this change in narrative style is supposed to mirror the changes in Stephen’s maturity. We see him lose his childhood innocence, undergo a sexual awakening (in which he sleeps with a string of prostitutes) and then feel the full weight of Catholic guilt on his shoulders.
Later, when he goes to university, we experience his intellectual development and his gradual revolt against his religion, much to the chagrin of his close friends who fail to understand how he can no longer believe in God.
I have to confess that I absolutely loved and adored the first 100 or so pages of this book, which were mainly narrated in a direct style and provided some of the best descriptions of what it is to be a child that I have ever read. It was when the narrative got more complicated and more experimental that it failed to hook me as a reader.
But on the whole, having largely enjoyed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I’m pleased to say I have overcome my fear of Joyce… and I now have Dubliners in my sights!
‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ by James Joyce, first published in 1916, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it claims the novel established the author “as one of the most innovative literary talents of the twentieth century”.